Good Old New Israel

There was a nice back-and-forth last week between Walter Russell Mead, Damon Linker, and Daniel Larison about whether American support for Israel isn’t due not so much to the presence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby but, rather, the fact that Americans are naturally receptive to the pitches of that lobby because we see ourselves as a “New Israel” and hence have a natural affinity for the “Old Israel.”

I think Daniel makes an important point that any group conceiving of themselves as a “New Israel” would be more likely to have ambivalent feelings at best, hostile ones at worst, toward any group calling themselves “Old Israel.” Christianity itself provides an excellent example. So saying that Americans have an affinity for Israel because we think of ourselves as a New Israel does leave something out.

What it leaves out, I think, is that the State of Israel is also a “New Israel_ – it’s both a settler society and a reborn nation. I doubt very much that Americans would have a similar affinity for Israel if neither of these things were true, if Israel were, say, a Jewish version of Armenia. This is a point I made in my dialogue with Ross Douthat this past summer.

I’m also slightly surprised to hear Daniel disparaging the argument that there is a cultural affinity between the United States and Israel, or that this impacts our foreign policy, because an argument very like that was the basis of his criticism of a personal favorite piece of mine from early 2009.

Of course, I agree with Larison’s narrower point, that foreign policy doesn’t express the “will” of the people in any sense. Neither, I would argue, does any policy – the people doesn’t have a “will” of any sort. But some policies will be a harder sell and some will be easier. America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, for example, is longer-standing than our alliance with Israel. But it is not nearly so popular. That unpopularity hasn’t threatened our alliance in any fundamental way – but I would be surprised to hear Larison argue that it imposes no constraints at all. Israel is the opposite case, but it is not unique. America supported the lost cause of the Chinese nationalists well beyond the point of reason, and even today there is enormous sentimental attachment to the Taiwanese cause. That hasn’t stopped America from slowly but surely easing towards advocacy of reconciliation with the mainland on, basically, the mainland’s terms. But it’s been a very slow process, and it would no doubt have been swifter if American popular sentiment on the subject were different.